By Tony Stafford
The last Sunday of the old year, yes that’s right with the mornings getting 10 minutes lighter per week, is traditionally time for a mid-term report on the football, and the state of play among the top jumping yards.
I might have room for those topics a little later, but the biggest chunk of this offering, possible because I only lasted until the first drinks break in the Melbourne test this morning, concerns matters in the Antipodes this winter.
Garbage would be the most appropriate description of the batting, bowling and fielding offered up by this arrogant bunch of over-paid losers (and never forget, Oval pitch despoilers) as they lurched to a 4-0 deficit in the most spineless manner.
Cricketers have for some time been borne along with the general inflation of rewards to sportsmen of above-average ability, with the 20-20 competitions – slog-fests where someone’s bound to come off – in most parts of the cricketing world providing almost Premier League soccer wealth to its participants.
When you listen to the commentaries from Australia, you hear that Michael Carberry and Joe Root are great one-day players, yet they go for hours, or as long as they last, which is often a much shorter time, becalmed and shotless. Indeed almost clueless.
They’ve been rendered impotent by bowlers, Watson and Siddall especially, sending down five balls per over wide of the stumps. Every time Alastair Cook scored a few with a little fluency – that was when he’d not got an early bath courtesy of the two proper fast bowlers Johnson and Harris – on came Watson and Siddall with their bore-them-out tactics and the dual effect was a stagnant scoreboard and intemperate dismissals.
Like most of the experts, I anticipated a much better performance, but the recent English Ashes series, on the back of a change in the Aussie coaching responsibilities, had been illusory, so much so that Ian Botham was moved to predict a 5-0 whitewash the other way to what’s happening.
As late as during the closing stages of the Third Test, characterised like all the others with spineless batting and inexplicable collapses, the advert he’d recorded for a betting company, featuring several City-type young hotshots pontificating in front of a scoreboard sat on an armchair, he was still saying that “the English bowlers will have the answer in the final analysis”, or words to that effect. I was ready to take a more accurate note of Sir Ian’s words this week, but he must have asked his bosses to withdraw the embarrassing ad. Wonder what he got for those wise words?
The last Australian Ashes series was a resounding success for England, based on the batting up front of Strauss, Cook and Trott. Trott’s cautious competence had descended in the intervening three years into rampant unbalanced frenzy, a la David Warner. Unfortunately Michael Clarke knows where to put his fielders – before the fact, unlike Cook, who’s a founder member of the “put him where the last one went” club - and Trott was caught twice for bugger all in the first test and promptly buggered off home.
It took until the third test before Swann gave up, humiliated by the way he was dumped repeatedly into the stands by Warner, Watson, Clarke, Bailey, Haddin et al. That left Monty as the spinner, and the only guarantee you have with this multiple 2013 domestic season disciplinary offender is that he won’t keep the bowlers waiting long once he gets in.
The Fourth Test offered us our best chance when going into the third day 91 runs ahead, despite a poor score, with only one Aussie wicket to take. Yet Cook allowed last man Nathan Lyon to contribute 18 unbeaten in a last-wicket flourish of 40 quick runs with Brad Haddin, with injudicious short-pitched bowling and spread fields.
Lyon, emboldened by this unexpected bounty then must have been astonished to get five wickets with his generally non-spinning off-breaks. Enough. What to do?
First, head coach Andy Flower and more importantly, the ultra-boring batting coach Graham Gooch must go. So must Cook, at least as captain and I’d also jettison Carberry, at 33 not good enough to be embarking on a test career. His character was established when he dropped a sitter (one of three) in the one game we might have won. You could even say farewell to Bell, Pietersen and probably Broad whose gutless batting against Johnson was the biggest factor in the tail’s constant failures.
At the moment, there’s a 20-20 competition going on in Australia. The Big Bash is notable in that it’s giving well-remunerated employment to quite a few of the players left out of the touring party, but who are due to come in for the five one days and three 20-20’s in January and early February.
In no particular order openers Michael Lumb and Alex Hales (scored 49 in a 19-ball innings in a match reduced to eight overs a side), middle order batsmen Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan, all-rounder Chris Woakes and brilliant wicketkeeper-batsman Joss Buttler are all there and in form. I’d draft in the lot.
When they made the selection of the bowling attack for the test series, much emphasis was placed on the need to have ultra-tall bowlers to take advantage of the steep bounce at Brisbane’s Gabba and Perth’s WACA grounds. In addition to the seemingly bombproof (selection-wise if not batting-wise) Broad, three more giant beanpoles, Tremlett, Finn and the Irishman Boyd Rankin were all lined up.
Finn and Rankin have proved excellent drinks waiters and Tremlett, after sending down some medium-paced trundlers in the first test, has been given time off to add to his already muscle-bound physique and to top up his tan in the outer.
The choice of that trio came at the expense of a bowler who has never let England down and was in the thrall of a brilliant domestic season. Graham Onions has played in just nine tests, taking 32 wickets at 29 apiece. A major injury kept him out for more than two years, but he was back in full form last season for champions Durham.
Selectors reckoned him to be the wrong type of bowler – in other words not a Tremlett, Rankin or Finn – but he was the nearest we could have had to a Watson, Siddall or Harris. Instead he was left to find winter work for the Dolphins in South Africa. I’d be calling for him to get on the next plane for the Sydney test on New Year’s Day, but he won’t.
To racing: so Nicky Henderson got one rewarding result when Gold Cup hero Bob’s Worth, benefiting as Hendo has for years from an ace Barry Geraghty ride, won the Lexus Chase in Ireland and then had a Newbury treble the same afternoon.
He’s more than £300,000 behind old rival Paul Nicholls in the title race, and will need Bob to win the Gold Cup and Sprinter Sacre to recover health and form to have any chance (Grand National apart) of catching big Paul.
Meanwhile the Manchester teams continue to get the rub of the green and refereeing decisions as they move inexorably up the table. I’ll be behind the sofa at 1.30 today. If Newcastle’s luck is anything like it was against Stoke, two silly sendings-off, a non-given handball and an over-the-line special all in their favour, then I’ll be afraid to look. At least Chelsea against Liverpool is a match to savour, though again, the Manchester teams apart, has any club had more luck over the past few seasons than Mourinho’s (old) boys?